Is HPV Hereditary?

If not, why does it occur in babies and cluster in families?

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is not considered hereditary, though some transmission has been documented from parent to child. There are times when HPV may occur in young children or cluster in families. However, HPV is not transferred as part of the genes a baby acquires from each parent and is therefore not considered inherited.

This article discusses how genetics may make someone vulnerable to HPV infection, common risk factors for acquiring HPV, and different ways (types of transmission) a parent may spread HPV to a child.

Low angle view of smiling father picking up toddler at park
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Genetic Susceptibility

While HPV is not spread from the DNA of the parent to the child, the genes that a person inherits may make HPV infection more likely. The inherited traits may increase their genetic susceptibility, or a genetic predisposition to develop a condition due to a person's particular genetic make-up. This may account for some of the times HPV infection seems to cluster in families.

There are many reasons this is the case, but it comes down to the genetic characteristics of a person's immune function. Some specific genetic characteristics make it more likely that—when infected with a cancer-causing strain of HPV—a person will develop cancer.

For example, a 2016 review of studies found that a certain genetic variation (polymorphism) led to susceptibility to HPV infection and cervical cancer. When talking about cancer it's important to note that there are hundreds of HPV strains, and only roughly 15 are associated with cancer.

Common Risk Factors

The "nature vs. nurture" debate is often brought up concerning medical conditions. It asks whether we are a product of our genetic inheritance (nature) or environment (nurture). It can sometimes be difficult to separate the two.

For example, a hereditary condition may be attributed to similar lifestyle practices such as diet. An environmental condition, on the other hand, may seem genetic in origin. This is the case with HPV infection.

While two siblings, for example, may share common genes, they may both develop an infection due to sharing common risk factors for getting HPV. Or, as noted below, both could potentially acquire the infection from another source, such as a parent during childhood.

Vertical Transmission

The most common reason people wonder whether HPV is hereditary is when the infection occurs in babies and young children. It's not unheard of for a baby to develop warts (papillomas) in their mouth, lungs, or vocal cords related to HPV, and it's well-documented that the virus can be transmitted from mother to child at times.

There are four possible ways this occurs, some much more common than others. (There has also been some recent evidence that suggests the virus may be transferred via sperm, but the research is very young.)

Prenatal Transmission

While extremely uncommon, there is a small chance that HPV may be transferred from the mother's body to the baby during pregnancy. HPV DNA has been isolated from amniotic fluid, the placenta, and umbilical cord.

Perinatal Transmission

More commonly, a baby may acquire HPV from a mother as it passes through the birth canal during delivery. When transmission occurs, papillomas may occur on the oral and nasal mucosa, in the throat, in the lungs, or sometimes even in the genital region.

While transmission can occur, it's not considered to be common enough to recommend cesarian sections instead of vaginal births for mothers who are infected with HPV.

Strains of HPV

It's important to note that the strains of that cause HPV warts or papillomas are not the strains that can lead to cancer.

Postnatal Transmission

HPV is transmitted by direct (skin-to-skin) contact rather than sexual contact alone. This might occur during diaper changes, for example, if a parent touches their genitals and then changes a diaper without washing their hands.

Much less commonly, HPV might be transmitted via contact with the virus on an object (fomite transmission). For example, a person might touch the region on themselves that is infected and then wipe with a towel. If the towel is moist and used relatively soon on the baby, the transmission could potentially occur.

Summary

Even though HPV isn't hereditary, it can be difficult to prevent HPV infection from parent to child. No sexual penetration is needed to transmit the virus, and can be transmitted by skin touching. Often, HPV infection is asymptomatic, and people may not even know they were infected.

If you have any concerns about HPV infection for you or your child, reach out to your healthcare provider and ask any questions you may have.

A Word From Verywell

The best way to prevent vertical transmission from a mother to baby is for people to receive their HPV vaccine. The vaccines not only cover the strains most likely to lead to cancer but are effective against the strains most likely to cause genital warts—or papillomas in the mouths or throats of babies.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can genital warts be passed from mother to child?

    Yes. HPV, the virus that causes most strains of genital warts, can be spread through skin-to-skin contact. This allows it to be passed from parent to child without sexual contact. HPV vaccinations and good handwashing can reduce the risk of spreading HPV.

  • Is high-risk HPV hereditary?

    No. HPV is easily spread through skin contact, but it is not passed down in the DNA. So, HPV is not inherited. But, HPV infections can be common among family members and the virus can be spread from parent to child.

10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading
Originally written by Lisa Fayed